Ten years ago, Estelle Johnson’s club soccer home was a 4,000-seat football stadium hidden in the back of Widener’s campus, with artificial turf and permanent gridiron markings.
This summer, her home will be the sparkling surroundings of Red Bull Arena with lush grass under bright lights, visible to everyone who takes a train from New Jersey into the heart of Manhattan.
If you want an expert on American women’s soccer’s progress over the years, look no further than the former Philadelphia Independence centerback who now plays for Gotham FC, the new name of the team long known as Sky Blue FC.
“Oh, lord,” Johnson said with a laugh as she recalled her time in Philadelphia, where she began her pro career with the Independence in 2010. “You’ve got to remember where you came from. That’s really important to A) who I am, but B), like, to really keep perspective at how far this sport has come.”
She still keeps in touch with former Independence manager Paul Riley, who now leads the perennial NWSL power North Carolina Courage.
“We laugh about it all the time,” Johnson said. “Every time I see Paul, we go down this whole winding road of our first couple years together and how crazy those were.”
If pandemic protocols allow it, there might be a few more recollections shared when Gotham hosts the Courage on April 20 in its first home game of the NWSL Challenge Cup. The tournament starts this weekend and kicks off the year before the regular season starts in late spring.
Four games will be nationally televised on CBS Sports Network, including Friday’s Houston-Chicago opener (a rematch of last year’s final) and Gotham’s visit next Wednesday to Orlando, led by Brazilian star Marta. The cup final between the winners of two geography-based groups of 5 teams each will be on CBS’s broadcast network on May 8.
Unfortunately, Gotham has to wait until after the Challenge Cup to play at Red Bull Arena. When the schedule was set, New Jersey’s outdoor crowd limits weren’t big enough to make playing at the big venue economically feasible. So the team will start the year at Montclair State University’s 5,000-seat soccer stadium, where it played last year’s NWSL Fall Series. A small number of fans will be allowed in.
No matter where it plays, Gotham will be one of the year’s more intriguing teams. The attack is led by U.S. national team rising star Margaret Purce and Delran’s Carli Lloyd, who’s in an intense battle for a roster spot at this summer’s Olympics. The defense features Johnson and Lehigh Valley native Gina Lewandowski, though stalwart goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan is out injured.
McCall Zerboni and Jennifer Cudjoe anchor the midfield, and are joined by an intriguing newcomer in South Korean playmaker Sodam Lee. She has already made an impression, scoring a spectacular long-range goal in a preseason scrimmage against the Washington Spirit.
“She’s just as much of a joy off the field as she is on,” Johnson said. “I think that having her in the midfield, she just adds a level of, like, calm and a level of skill that, I don’t know, it’s just world-class, honestly. But I think the best part is that she plays with her personality, and she has such a big personality.”
This summer, they’ll be joined by rookie Briana Pinto, the No. 3 pick in this year’s draft who has already been part of senior national team training camps. A junior at North Carolina, Pinto deferred entering the NWSL so she could play the NCAA season that the pandemic moved from last fall to this spring.
Pinto’s arrival will also increase the spotlight on Gotham FC’s having one of the NWSL’s highest numbers of Black players. The club isn’t shy about it, promoting them often on social media, and Johnson appreciates that.
“It’s just powerful, and it’s exciting to think about,” said Johnson, who like many of her colleagues grew up playing on mostly white teams. “We just hope that little Black girls across the U.S. see our starting lineup or see our roster and are inspired and encouraged and empowered. … We’ve just got to keep bringing the visibility, and it’s important for the future of the sport and the future of this country.”
Johnson has one other item on her docket this spring, and it’s a big one. This weekend, she’s with Cameroon’s national team for an intercontinental qualifying playoff to reach this summer’s Olympics. The Indomitable Lionesses play Chile in a two-game series, Saturday and Tuesday, at a neutral site in Antalya, Turkey.
Cameroon has advanced to the round of 16 in the last two World Cups, but it missed the 2016 Olympics. So this is a big moment.
“I know that I should probably be nervous, but I’m just, like, genuinely excited,” Johnson said. “We had a great showing in the World Cup, so as long as we come and play like that, I have every faith that we’ll qualify. It’s really, really important for our country to be able to qualify and keep amplifying the talent in Africa, and we know that all of Africa is behind us.”